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Institutionalizing English Modernism 1924–33: From the Vers Group to MARS

  • Elizabeth Darling


On 28 February 1933, the Modern Architectural Research (MARS) Group was founded as the English chapter of the Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) by Wells Coates, Edwin Maxwell (Max) Fry, David Pleydell Bouverie, P. Morton Shand, Hubert de Cronin Hastings, and John Gloag. Historians have viewed its subsequent activities variously. There has been a tendency to sneer at its work in the 1930s and to praise its influence on the evolution of Modernism in the post-war years. Nonetheless, there is a consensus that, at the very least, the coming together of Coates and his allies provided, as John Summerson later recalled, ‘a focus, a point of illumination, in a cultural scene which was confused and overcast'. In reaching this conclusion, scholars have sketched in a pre-history of the Group and have established a basic chronology of earlier attempts to organize collective activity around the promulgation of a modern design or architectural culture in England. These efforts began around 1924 with a short-lived initiative by Christopher Hussey of Country Life, and were followed by the Twentieth Century Group, founded in 1930 by the Cambridge don and modernist patron, Mansfield Duval Forbes. The existing accounts of this activity are not inaccurate, but they are incomplete. Moreover, although they imply a trajectory towards the ultimate founding of MARS, they contain little consideration of how, why, or under whose direction, this process might have taken place.



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1 Montreal, Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) Archives, Wells Coates Archive (WCA), Box 12/A, Confidential Memorandum, 28 February 1933, THE INTERNATIONAL CONGRESS OF MODERN ARCHITECTURE [sic].

2 See, for example, Stamp, Gavin, ‘Introduction’, in Britain in the Thirties: AD Profile 24 (London, 1980), pp. 2025 (p. 22), which describes the Group as ‘just a precursor of Radical Chic’. A more reasoned analysis is given in Mumford, Eric, The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism 1928–1960 (Cambridge, MA and London, 2000), especially ch. 4.

3 Summerson, John, ‘The MARS Group and the Thirties’, in English Architecture, Public and Private: Essays for Kerry Downes, ed. Bold, John and Chaney, Edward (London, 1993), pp. 303–09 (p. 309). On the history of MARS more generally, see, inter alia: Campbell, Louise, ‘The MARS Group, 1933–1939’, R1BA Transactions, 4:2 (1985), pp. 6979 ; Gold, John, The Experience of Modernism, Modern Architects and the Future City (London, 1997); Gold, John, ‘Commoditie, Firmenes and Delight: the MARS Group's New Architecture Exhibition (1938) and Imagery of the Urban Future’, Planning Perspectives, 8 (1993), pp. 357–76; Malcolm Reading, ‘A History of the MARS Group 1933–45’ (unpublished typescript, 1986, held at the British Architectural Library); Whyte, William, ‘The MARS group (act. 1933–1957)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, at (accessed on 10 September 2011).

4 My use of the terms England / English throughout this paper reflects a belief that the work under discussionhere was confined to, and addressed, what were specifically English rather than British conditions of modernity, a view prevalent in the revisionist history of English art in the same period. On this, see, for example, English Art 1860–1914, ed. Corbett, David Peters and Perry, Lara (Manchester, 2000).

5 See Mumford, , The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism 1928–1960, pp. 25 , and also Ciucci, Giorgio, ‘The Invention of the Modern Movement’, Oppositions, [n.v.] (Spring 1981), pp. 6891.

6 Summerson, , ‘The MARS Group and the Thirties’, p. 309.

7 By modernization, I mean some attempt by architects, and their clients, to engage self-consciously, if not head-on, with the new technologies of materials which had emerged in the post-war era, as well as the new social circumstances which perhaps demanded a more thoroughgoing professionalization of practice than had hitherto existed.

8 Jackson, Anthony, The Politics of Architecture. A History of Modern Architecture in Britain (London, 1970), ‘Preview’.

9 Summerson, John, ‘Introduction’ to Trevor Dannatt, Modern Architecture in Britain (London, 1959), p. 12.

10 See Darling, Elizabeth, Re-forming Britain, Narratives of Modernity before Reconstruction (London, 2007), passim, and the Introduction’ to Women and the Making of Built Space in England, 1870–1959, ed. Darling, Elizabeth and Whitworth, Lesley (Aldershot, 2007).

11 Pevsner, Nikolaus, Pioneers of the Modern Movement, from William Morris to Walter Gropius (London, 1936), pp. 29 and 69.

12 See, for example, Dean, David, Architecture of the 1930s, Recalling the Architectural Scene (New York, 1983); Frampton, Kenneth, Modern Architecture, a Critical History (London, 1987); and Curtis, William, Modern Architecture since 1900 (London, 1990).

13 This has been the primary focus of my research in recent years; the position formed the premise of my monograph, Re-forming Britain, as well as my current work on Wells Coates and the arenas in which progressive ideas about design culture were developed in 1920s England. It forms part of a broader shift in modernist architectural studies, summarized very effectively in Goldhagen, Sarah Williams, ‘Something to Talk About: Modernism, Discourse, Style’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 64 (June 2005), pp. 144–67.

14 SirBlomfield, Reginald and Connell, A. D., ‘For and Against Modern Architecture’, The Listener, 28 November 1934, pp. 885–88 (p. 885).

15 Saler, Michael T., The Avant-Garde in Interwar England, Medieval Modernism and the London Underground (New York and Oxford, 1999).

16 For further exploration of this idea, see Williams Goldhagen, ‘Something to Talk About’.

17 Cornforth, John, The Search for a Style (New York and London, 1988), p. 77.

18 London, RIBA and V&A Archives, Architecture Club papers, AC/2/3, ‘The Architecture Club List of Members’, 1922.1 also rely on AC /1 /1, Peter Murray's ‘A Short History of the Architecture Club’, March 1979 for this account.

19 Ibid., AC/2/3, Membership List for 1922, and list for 1922–37.

20 Cornforth, John calls it the ‘63 Club’, in The Search for a Style, p. 77. Powers, Alan refers to the ‘Vers Group’ in his Serge Chermayeff: Designer, Architect, Teacher (London, 2001), p. 39.

21 Carrington, Noel, Industrial Design in Britain (London, 1976), p. 136.

22 Ibid.

23 Cornforth, , The Search for a Style, p. 77.

24 Murray, ‘A Short History of the Architecture Club’.

25 Ibid.

26 Carrington, , Industrial Design, p. 136.

27 Grinling is something of an elusive figure. His family, who were part owners of W. A. Gilbey, the distillers, also owned The Pantheon, in Oxford Street, London, which housed the offices in which Chermayeff worked. Grinling became involved in later group efforts, suggesting a potential role as backer or patron of the new architecture; see Powers, , Serge Chermayeff, p. 39.

28 Carrington, , Industrial Design, p. 62.

29 Corbusier, Le, Towards a New Architecture (London, 1987 [1923 and 1946]), p. 289.

30 Bullock, Nicholas, ‘Frederick Etchells’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, at view/article (accessed on 10 September 2011).

31 See Saler, The Avant-Garde in Interwar England, and ch. 1 of my Re-forming Britain.

32 See Saler, ibid., passim, but especially ch. 1, ‘Framing the Picture’.

33 This phrase is taken from an undated verse of c. 1930, cited in Hillier, Bevis, Young Betjeman (London, 1989), p. 260. The full text is: ‘We're giving a little party —

Not exactly low brow, not exactly arty. / For us functional folk who like beauty stark, /

And decorate our rooms with it in Belsize Park, / To know Craven Pritchard is a pretty good scoop: / He's the live-wire behind the Twentieth Century Group’.

34 I discuss Forbes and Finella in Finella, Mansfield Forbes, Raymond McGrath and Modernist Architecture in Britain’, journal of British Studies, 50 (January 2011), pp. 125–55. The gatherings I mention here might be understood as another prototype for group activity.

35 Strathdon [pseudo. Mansfield Forbes], ‘Finella’, Country Life, 67 (22 March 1930), pp. 437-40. The visitor numbers are taken from a letter from Forbes to the bursar of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (which owned the freehold of Finella): Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College Archives, College papers, DEM: BUR: C/03/007, letter of 1 October 1932.

36 Indiana, USA, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Lance Sieveking papers (LSP), letter from Forbes- Sieveking, 6 April 1930 (the papers are not individually numbered). Sieveking was a pioneering wireless producer who worked for the BBC.

37 Norwich, University of East Anglia (UEA) Archives, Jack Pritchard Papers (JPA), PP/34/1 /A/24, letter from Forbes-Pritchard, 25 July 1930.

38 See Pritchard, Jack, View from a Long Chair, the Memoirs of Jack Pritchard (London, 1984) for an account of his early life.

39 On Isokon, see Grieve, Alistair, Isokon (London, 2004), and my Wells Coates (London, 2012).

40 Indiana, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, LSP, Forbes-Sieveking, letter of 9 September 1930.

41 Norwich, UEA Archives, JPA, PP/28/4/2, Pritchard-William Crabtree (who had enquired about the new group), 6 October 1930.

42 Montreal, CCA Archives, WCA, Box 12/D, ‘Twentieth Century Group. Agenda to be circulated to all members before meeting, 26th February 1931’.

43 Elgohary, Farouk, ‘Wells Coates and his Position in the Modern Movement in England’ (doctoral thesis, University of London, 1966), p. 62.

44 An Exhibition with a difference’, Architects’ Journal, 72 (30 July 1930), pp. 8283, (P. 82).

45 Indiana, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, LSP, Forbes-Sieveking, 9 September 1930. This letter refers to an enclosed Memorandum which summarized the meeting and listed those who attended. Unfortunately, it has not survived. Sieveking does not seem to have been terribly interested in the TCG, however hard Forbes tried to persuade him otherwise. He never joined.

46 Chermayeff, Serge, ‘Brief Statement of the 20th Century Group’, in Design and the Public Good. Selected Writings 1930–1980 by Serge Chermayeff, ed. Plunz, Richard (Cambridge MA, 1982), pp. 109–10.

47 This account of the TCG is a synthesis of material drawn from the papers of Wells Coates, Mansfield Forbes, Jack Pritchard and Lance Sieveking. The archival record is by no means complete, and the quest continues to locate more material.

48 See Norwich, UEA Archives, JPA, PP/34/1/A/28 for a many-paged Memorandum in response to a meeting held on 7 October 1930. Forbes's near-illegible script cannot have encouraged members to read such missives.

49 Norwich, UEA Archives, JPA, 23/2/37, Coates-Pritchard, partially dated October 1930 (likely after 22 October).

50 Indiana, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, LSP, Forbes-Sieveking, 7 November 1930.

51 Cambridge, Clare College Archives, Mansfield Forbes Papers, CCHR / 2 / FOR / 5 / 5, Forbes-McGrath, letter of late August 1930 (the precise date is unclear).

52 The weekend is recorded in LSP, Forbes-Sieveking, 9 November 1930.

53 Montreal, CCA Archives, WCA, Box 12/D. ‘Twentieth Century Group. Agenda to be circulated to all members before meeting […] 26th February 1931’.

54 Toronto, United Church of Canada (UCC) Archives, Coates Family Papers (CFP), Box 16/4, Coates-Agnes Coates (his mother), letter of 12 March 1931.

55 Montreal, CCA Archives, WCA, Box 6.

56 Chermayeff, Serge, ‘A New Spirit and Idealism’, Architects’ journal, 74 (4 November 1931), pp. 619–20, and Coates, Wells, ‘Materials for Architecture’, pp. 588–89 in the same.

57 Montreal, CCA Archives, WCA, Box 11, ‘MEMORANDUM FOR A MEETING OF TWENTIETH CENTURY GROUP [sic]. Thursday Third December Nineteen Thirty One’.

58 Cambridge, Clare College, Forbes Papers, CCHR/2/FOR/5/5, Coates-Forbes, 10 December 1931.

59 Montreal, CCA Archives, WCA, Box 12/D, Forbes- Coates, 21 February 1932.

60 Elgohary, , ‘Wells Coates’, p. 70.

61 Fry, Max, Autobiographical Sketches (London, 1975), pp. 133–36.

62 Cambridge, Clare College, Forbes Papers, CCHR/2/FOR/5/5, Forbes-Mary McGrath, 11 August 1930.

63 John Gold cites a recollection by Berthold Lubetkin that in 1931 he and Coates discussed the formation of a new architecture group, its goal to ‘oust power’ from the RIBA. He spoke of the need for people to band together in ‘a new unit’. As Gold notes, nothing came from this conversation, and there is no reference to it in any of Coates's papers, nor of any contact with Lubetkin at this date. This leads me to conjecture that 1931 is too early for this conversation to have taken place and that the Russian may have misremembered. See Gold, , The Experience of Modernism, p. 107.

64 London, Tate Gallery Archives, Unit One papers, TGA 9120. The papers are those from Coates's office.

65 Much of this writing was collated in Nash, Paul, Room and Book (London, 1932).

66 Stephenson, Andrew, ‘Strategies of Situation’, Oxford Art Journal, 14 (1991), pp. 3051.

67 London, Tate, Unit One papers (n. 64 above).

68 London, Tate, 9120/1 Nash-Coates, 19 January 1933.

69 London, Tate, 9120/12, Coates-Nash, 22 March 1933.

70 My discussion here is necessarily somewhat vague as there remains substantial work to be done on individual members of the English Modern Movement and their espousal of the Modernist cause.

71 London, Tate, 9120/7 Coates-Nash, 3 March 1933, and 9120/12, Coates-Nash, 22 March 1933.

72 A New Group of Artists’, The Times, 12 June 1933, p. 10.

73 Ibid.

74 Read, H. (ed.), Unit One, the Modern Movement in England, Architecture, Painting and Sculpture (London 1934), pp. 104–15.

75 London, Tate, Mayor Gallery papers, TAM 7B, Ywain, ‘Confusion in Art’, unsourced press cutting.

76 Plans were made to form an ‘Artist's Unit’ from the existing membership, but by then they were too successful and otherwise occupied. That Unit would ultimately evolve into the Design Research Unit. See London, Tate, 9120/143, draft typescript, ‘Artists' Unit Manifesto’. On the Design Research Unit, see Brumwell, Joe, Bright Ties, Bold Ideas: Marcus Brumwell, Pioneer of c20 Advertising, Champion Of Artists (Truro, 2010).

77 London, Architectural Association (AA) Archives, MARS Group Folders, letter from Giedion-Robertson, 6 July 1929 (this refers to a previously issued invitation sent 19 May).

78 London, AA Archives, MARS Group Folders, Shand-Giedion, January 1929.

79 Ibid., correspondence of 27 July 1929, 20 September 1929.

80 Ibid., Cutbush-Giedion, 23 July 1930.

81 Reading, ‘A History of the MARS Group 1933–45’.

82 According to Elgohary, , ‘Wells Coates’, p. 72 , and Gold, , ‘By Land and Sea: The MARS Group, CIAM IV and the London Plans’, in CIAM and the Functional City, ed. Harbusch, G. and Sommer, K. (forthcoming, Rotterdam, 2012), p. 2 , Shand knew Coates from the former's membership of the TCG. However, Shand is not mentioned by name in any of the surviving TCG-related material and Elgohary does not cite this material as a source, instead relying on an interview with Godfrey Samuel, conducted in the mid-1960s. My thanks to John Gold for allowing me to have a preview copy of his paper.

83 Letter from Giedion to Coates (undated, c. October 1932 and now lost) quoted in an exchange of letters between Howard Robertson and Coates, following the press announcement of the formation of MARS, Architects’ Journal, 77 (10 May 1933), p. 623. Robertson was annoyed that the announcement ignored his previous involvement with CIAM.

84 Fry, Max, ‘How modern architecture came to England’, Pidgeon Audio-Visual audio-tape set, London, 1975.

85 Toronto, UCC Archives, CFP, box 3/5 Coates-Havelock Coates, 1 May 1933.

86 Montreal, CCA Archives, WCA, Box 12/D, ‘Confidential Memorandum, 28 February 1933, THE INTERNATIONAL CONGRESS OF MODERN ARCHITECTURE’.

87 Montreal, CCA Archives, WCA, Boxes 11 and 12, series of memoranda March 1933.

88 Astragal, , ‘The MARS Group’, Architects’ Journal, 77 (3 May 1933), p. 580.

89 Gold, , Land and Sea, p. 1.

90 See Darling, , Re-forming Britain, pp. 120–25; Darling, Elizabeth, ‘To Induce Humanitarian Sentiments in Prurient Londoners, the Propaganda Activities of London's Voluntary Housing Associations in the Inter-War Period’, London Journal, 27 (2002), pp. 4162 ; Gold, ‘Commoditie, Firmenes and Delight’.

91 London, RIBA and V&A Archives, Godfrey Samuel Papers, SaG/90/2, minutes of Central Executive Committee meetings December 1936 to February 1937, document the considerable discussion this raised, and the attempts of the committee to meet with Connell, Ward and Lucas to clarify their motivations for their entry.

92 The papers of Max Fry, held at the RIBA and V&A Archives, contain material discussing the exhibition and subsequent publication — Sherban Cantacuzino's Wells Coates (London, 1978).

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Institutionalizing English Modernism 1924–33: From the Vers Group to MARS

  • Elizabeth Darling


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